Reform sought for black students

County schools chief has yet to respond to letter calling for action

January 02, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

For the second time in two years, a group of African-American educators and community members has fired off an anxious letter to Baltimore County school officials asking them to enact bold classroom and curriculum reforms to help black students succeed academically.

Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston - the recipient of the most recent letter, sent almost a month ago - has yet to respond, said Ella White Campbell, a retired educator and Liberty Road community activist who is chairman of the Minority Achievement Advisory Group. Campbell said she's upset it's taken Hairston so long to get back to the group. When he does, she said, she hopes he'll provide the group with the information it requested.

"I want [Hairston] to delineate a plan of action and give it a timeline," Campbell said. "I don't want to hear anything about study groups or task forces."

The group has been critical of past efforts by the school system to bridge the education gap between black and white students.

After Campbell and her group offered ideas to improve black students' academic performance in 1998, then-Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione convened a committee to research the issue. The panel - called the Minority Achievement Task Force - hasn't been active for at least six months. Marchione retired from the school system in June.

"Nothing is going on," said Campbell, a member of the task force. Black students - especially boys - score consistently lower on reading and math tests than white students.

Recent results from Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests show that 28.9 percent of black third-graders met or surpassed state standards for reading, compared with 50.7 percent of white third-graders. Hispanic and Asian third-graders scored 37.8 percent and 53.3 percent, respectively.

Hairston has said he expects all students to succeed academically and has avoided singling out black students as those most in need of assistance. He could not be reached to comment Friday.

Test data show that some black students are falling behind, and that worries the advisory group, as well as the Baltimore County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which will hold a town hall meeting this month to discuss ways to address the problem.

Board of Education members speak often of raising standards for all students. Members say they would like to see scores rise quickly. But most seem content with the pace at which improvements are being made and with the programs in place, including student tutorials, SAT preparation courses and teacher training.

"I think we are on the right track," said board member Jean M. H. Jung. "It's something just like the achievement gap between boys and girls and various socio-economic gaps that are slow to close, much slower than we would like."

Recently, a new director was appointed for the school system's Office of Equity and Assurance. Among other activities, Director Barbara S. J. Dezmon plans to review curriculum and instruction to ensure that the needs of minority and poor students are met.

Advisory group members say more must be done, including switches in some high-level administrative positions. Many administrators occupy the same positions they were in two years ago and no significant improvements have been made, Campbell said.

The group's letter to Hairston spells out its wishes: "We ask that you hold the staff accountable for their future actions related to [minority achievement] and obtain for us the empirical evidence of what steps have been taken to address this issue."

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